South Carolina species benefit from Coastal Program partnerships
Since its beginning in 1995, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s South Carolina Coastal Program has developed partnerships that have resulted in significant conservation achievements. That tradition continues today and has recently led to protection, restoration, and species recovery efforts – all on a single private property.
Scotswood Plantation consists of several thousand acres in Williamsburg County, South Carolina. Scotswood has been managed for decades for the bobwhite quail. However, Scotswood is no ordinary quail plantation. The mature longleaf pine forests embody both pine flatwoods and savannahs that have been maintained with the judicious use of prescribed fire. This is evident from the hooded pitcher plants and toothache grass that occur in the very diverse, intact native groundcover, as well as from the pond cypress trees that cohabitate the canopy with longleaf pine.
South Carolina Coastal Program Coordinator Jason Ayers initially began working on Scotswood over 10 years ago as a Service biologist coordinating habitat management efforts for five baseline red-cockaded woodpecker groups enrolled in the Service’s Safe Harbor program. Fast forward a few years and Ayers, now a Coastal Program biologist, worked once again with Scotswood, this time on management efforts for the federally endangered American chaffseed that occurs throughout the property. All of these efforts were possible through a partnership with Milliken Forestry, in particular its’ president, Lamar Comalander. Milliken Forestry is a true steward of Southern forests and represents the bulk of South Carolina’s enrolled baseline red-cockaded woodpecker groups in the Safe Harbor program.
In 2019 Ayers returned again to Scotswood through a new partnership with the Lord Berkeley Conservation Trust. Working together, the Lord Berkeley Conservation Trust and the Coastal Program protected the entirety of Scotswood in perpetuity with a conservation easement. To help secure the easement, the Coastal Program developed a comprehensive baseline documentation report that included a GIS-based map package, photo-documentation index, and conservation values report.
Meanwhile, a new partnership evolved for the South Carolina Coastal Program, this time with the Longleaf Alliance. The focus of this partnership was habitat enhancement and research for the Service’s priority species. Eventually this partnership turned towards the Carolina gopher frog, a federally listed At-Risk Species petitioned for listing under the Endangered Species Act. The Coastal Program, Longleaf Alliance and the Savannah River Ecology Lab are working together to survey isolated wetlands for the presence of gopher frogs, which includes eDNA analysis, acoustical recordings, and egg mass searches. Gopher frog eggs will also be collected, reared at the Orangeburg National Fish Hatchery, and then released as juveniles.
Where does that lead us? Back to Scotswood Plantation. The Coastal Program and Longleaf Alliance initially considered a habitat enhancement project in some of Scotswood’s pine forests that have been encroached by woody vegetation, which would benefit the RCW and provide areas for American chaffseed expansion. So this August, Ayers, Comalander, and Lisa Lord of the Longleaf Alliance met at Scotswood to discuss this work. It soon became obvious that a third species may benefit even more from this work – the Carolina gopher frog. Although much of Scotswood provides excellent longleaf pine habitat for the gopher frog’s terrestrial needs, many of the cypress ponds were being invaded by sweetgums and other hardwoods. harming both the hydrology and understory of these wetlands. This in turn diminishes the value of these areas for gopher frog breeding. Subsequently, in addition to the 500 acres of proposed upland enhancement, 20 acres of isolated wetland work was added to this project as well, which will be completed in fall 2020.
“The habitat improvement work on Scotswood is a perfect example of how public and private partners and landowners can work together to conserve and improve habitat for priority species,” said Lord. It’s even possible that these partnerships may go one step further and result in the ultimate goal – species recovery.